Thursday, 10 April 2008

Holiday reading 3

Our brief Easter holiday in the sun provided an opportunity for some intensive poolside reading. Having read some rave reviews on the internet of Alan Furst's World War 2 spy novels , I decided to take along Night Soldiers, which I think was his first book. For left-leaning political history junkies, it's a must, taking in as it does the rise of fascism in Europe, the Russian NKVD, the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance, not to mention the origins of the American OSS. Furst manages to combine a wealth of historical and political detail with a pacy spy story, which is no mean feat.

My only criticism would be that it suffers at times from the tendency of first-time novelists to chuck in everything they know, and from an inability to resist stories that take the narrative off at odd tangents, not all of which are satisfactorily brought to a conclusion. And there's one howler, which undermines the reader's trust in the author's historical research. One episode is set in Russia on Christmas Eve: trouble is, the date is given as December 24, when it's common knowledge that the Russians celebrate Christmas in the first week of January.

Errors of a more trivial nature marred my enjoyment of another book - Sarfraz Manzoor's Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'n' Roll. This time the mistakes were the fault of the publisher, not the author: the book was spattered with spelling and punctuation errors, inconsistency in use of capitals, and at least one sentence which even a cursory re-reading would have revealed as making no sense at all. I noted a similar sloppiness on the part of Jonathan Cape when reviewing Andrew Anthony's book; this time the culprit was Bloomsbury, another supposedly reputable publishing company.

As for the book itself, I quite enjoyed Manzoor's autobiographical account of growing up in Luton in the 70s and 80s. The author's initial claim to fame was based on his fanatical enthusiasm for the music of Bruce Springsteen, and the supposed disparity with his British Asian identity. The Boss's lyrics are woven through this book, used as chapter titles and as sounding-boards for the narrator's conflicted feelings about family and identity as he's growing up. It's a lively account, though the thematic rather than chronological structure sometimes confuses. The sheer poverty experienced by many Asian migrants to Britain forty or so years ago comes across strikingly.

However, I thought the book lacked a clear focus. A closer focus on the experience of following Bruce and the inevitable tensions with a conservative Asian upbringing might have made it more coherent. The attempt to broaden the focus to deal with British Asian, and more specifically 'Muslim' identity, in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, is less successful. I suspect the publishers saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of 'Muslim memoirs' and encouraged Manzoor to go well beyond his usual musical and cultural concerns. Incidentally, the dustjacket's focus on religion jars a little: the book isn't about Manzoor's 'constant battle to reconcile being both British and Muslim': religion is hardly mentioned and the author makes no reference to being a practising Muslim. Rather, it's really about a tension between cultural identities: British and Pakistani, European and Asian. This creeping substitution of 'Muslim' for Asian or Pakistani plays into the hands of those fundamentalists who want Islam to be treated as an ethnicity or identity rather than simply a religion, and as something essential and ineradicable rather than a matter of individual choice.

And I finally got round to reading Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times. I warmed immediately to its first-person narrative, which had the ease and directness of some of my favourite American authors, and which most British novelists somehow struggle to achieve. However, my enthusiasm cooled as the book progressed. Although I found the material fascinating, and particular passages - especially the final, melancholic return to Israel after long absence - very powerful, overall I thought the book lacked sufficient thematic focus and organisation. It was interesting to read Linda Grant in the Guardian last Thursday, writing about the way that some readers have misinterpreted the book as autobiography and have been disappointed to discover that it's 'made up.' The trouble is, it reads like autobiography. It's replete with the kind of detailed observation that seems drawn from first-hand experience, but which doesn't have much thematic consequence. The 'unity' of the book is the unity of a life, not of theme, which is a bold strategy in fiction, but also disconcerting for the reader.

The last of my poolside books was George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War, on which the recent Aaron Sorkin/Mike Nichols film was based. I'm still reading it, so a detailed review will have to wait.

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